I spent this week visiting my family in St. Kitts. St. Kitts is Saint Christopher and Nevis, a two-island federation in the Eastern Caribbean. It is a member of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS). In 2005, St. Kitts stopped producing sugar as a primary economic engine and turned nearly exclusively to tourism as its lifeblood. The country is after the high-end niche of sun and sand tourism. While courting the superrich, it also caters to the cruise ship clientele. In both cases, the tourists are almost exclusively White and either American or English.
The challenge – pursuing sun and sand tourism without respect blurs the lines between service and servitude. Sun and sand tourism without respect prostitutes our culture and offers little direct benefit to Kittitians themselves.
The economic case is significant on its own. The cost of living is skyrocketing as foreign nationals devour the most beautiful real-estate and essentially buy the vistas. In their voracious appetite for exclusivity, they are trying to privatize all of the most beautiful beaches. Exclusive resorts and private estates have already made public access to many beaches difficult if not impossible. This, despite the constitution of St. Kitts – in astute anticipation of this problem – making access to all of the beaches on the island a legal public right. No one, especially foreigners, can buy a beach – the interface between the sea and the sand. Kittitians cannot be banned from access to that cherished intersection.
But what of culture?
When the cruise ship tourists get off of their ships, they walk into Port Zante. The shops in Port Zante sell gaudy and garish souvenirs. Nothing distinctly Kittitian. T-shirts with monkeys on them with captions like, “Hangin’ Loose in St. Kitts.”
One display was stuffed monkeys wearing the tam that Rasta’s wear. The tams were the colors of Pan-Africanism – red, gold and green. The monkeys were adorned with locks – a symbol of the uncut hair of the Rasta similar to the uncut hair of the Sikh, similar to the uncut payot of the Jew. Here, affixed to a monkey. Welcome to St. Kitts.
The suite of stores in Port Zante are owned primarily by Indians through a complex social network that connects India, St. Martin and many Caribbean Islands. Many of the employees in these stores are also Indian, Indo-Guyanese, or from the Dominican Republic. It is hard to find Black Kittitians in any position of authority or ownership. In the most crass description, Indians are selling monkey shirts and jewelry to White people depicting Black people.
On a recent visit to Guyana, I attended a UNESCO sponsored meeting of the International Decade for People of African Descent. At that meeting, I was asked my thoughts about the challenges facing Guyana in front of a dramatic change in their economy. My feeling was that intellectual sovereignty is our most cherished ambition. Education in this part of the world is extraordinary, and the intellectual output is world class. Universities around the world, for example, can attest to the intellectual power of Caribbean students and faculty, especially in STEM fields. But that is not the narrative on display in this brand of sun and sand tourism. Servility, not sovereignty is being sold.
In order to get to the beach in front of the Marriott, you have to walk through the hotel. Public access requires you to brave rough Atlantic waves and climb across enormous rocks placed strategically to either direct the sea or exclude Kittitians, or possibly both. As you walk across the deck full of sun-burned tourists eating Irie wings and Reggae rice you pass the “St. Kitts weather station.”
The weather station is a wooden placard about chest high with a coconut hanging from a rope alongside it.
Box one – hot coconut = sunny day
Box two – wet coconut = rainy day
Box three – swinging coconut = windy day
Box four – missing coconut = hurricane
Just to the right of this display of how primitive we are, are more Rasta crowns with yarn locks stitched onto them.
This approach to sun and sand devalues our culture and belittles our identity. It welcomes disrespect. The consequences of that posture are dangerous and circle back to the economic implications for the country and the sovereignty of Kittitians. It undermines both. There is nothing wrong with sun and sand tourism, but is must come with a requirement of respect and a mandate of dignity. Our culture is a cherished social artifact. It was born despite and because of the barbarism of the ancestors of the very tourists we now serve. Without that recognition, sun and sand tourism will lead us back to where we came from. Colonial servants – expected to fulfill the narrative of being simple and servile.
According to Nana, who is 94 years old, born more than 60 years before St. Kitts independence:
“If yuh ‘in’ careful, watch an’ see, de White man comin’ back to lock off St. Kitts from de Black man.”